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Teaching Guide: Helping Students Generate a Topic

Suggested Sequence

The following suggestions and exercises for generating writing topics can be integrated into most writing classes.

Early in your class sequence you will probably want to discuss the concept of collecting ideas for writing topics. Follow the activities shown below. For additional exercises for teaching topic generation, Click on Go to Exercises for Generating Topics below.

Exercises

One way teachers can help students select effective topics for their writing assignments is by modeling the process of topic generation. It's important that the teacher walk the student through this process. By modeling topic generation, the teacher clarifies the process for students and helps to make the thinking process visible. The Brainstorming and Listing Exercise is designed to help the teacher with this modeling.

This exercise combines both brainstorming and listing. It is designed to help the teacher model the topic generating process for students. No special set up materials are needed. This exercise can be done on a whiteboard or on a blank overhead.

Definition of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is an informal way of generating topics to write about, or points to make about your topic. It can be done at any time during the writing process. You can brainstorm the topics for a whole paper or just a conclusion or an example. The important point about brainstorming is that there should be no pressure to be "brilliant." Students should simply open their minds to whatever pops into them. Think of it as a kind of free association. When I say "literacy" what pops into your mind? Much of what the students will come up with will not be useful, but that's okay. Part of brainstorming will involve a selection process.

Definition of Listing

Listing is a brainstorming technique many people find useful. It means doing just what its name suggests -- listing possible topics and then sublists of things you could say about each topic. A list could consist of the main topic of regional dialects and then sublists would be regional dialects you know or have experienced. Additional sublists might be particular words of each of those dialects, things you have noticed about those dialects (i.e. New Yorkers speak fast), what you think those dialects sound like, etc.

Brainstorming and Listing Exercise Teacher Instructions

Begin by "thinking out loud" or brainstorming about possible experiences you have had that might work as topics for the writing assignment. If the topic is "literacy," you might ask questions such as, "What sorts of experiences have you had with language that taught you something about the nature of language, or how language works?" Write these possible topics on the board (or on an overhead). A brainstorming session might produce topics such as regional dialects you've heard or spoken; becoming part of a new community, i.e. marrying into a family of sports fanatics; traveling to a foreign country; learning how to communicate with your pet; learning the jargon of the composition community, etc.

Then, select two or three of the topic ideas. Generate a list on the board or overhead sheet of all the different subtopics you can think of that are connected to those ideas. List out some of the common expressions of the dialects you know, for example. Or do a comparison between dialects. What was it that bothered you about being around all the sports talk?

After you've generated your lists, ask your students to help you find possible connections between the subtopics. Perhaps you notice that the two dialects are really similar in some way, i.e. that they both use jargon that seems to reflect the ethnicity of the original settlers of the area. Or maybe, the speed of speech in each region seems to match the pace of life there. This part of the exercise should be messy, because you are still brainstorming, recording random thoughts.

Then, ask your students which of the topics you've listed seems like it will provide enough material for a three-page paper. Cross out those topics they think won't work.

Then, have students generate their own lists using this same process. After they have eliminated topics that won't give them enough material, have them pick two of the best topics left and start freewriting. As they freewrite, one of the topics will usually emerge as more interesting to them and more relevant to the idea of literacy.

Brainstorming and Listing Exercise Student Instructions

Now that we've brainstormed and listed some possible topics for a Literacy Essay I might write based on my personal experiences, spend some time doing the same for possible topics for YOUR Literacy Essay.

First, brainstorm randomly about possible topics for the essay.

Then, pick two or three possible topics and list as many subtopics for these as you can think of.

After finishing your list, draw lines, make arrows, stars, whatever works for you, to indicate connections between different subtopics.

Then, cross out any topics you think won't generate enough information for a three-page paper.

Select two of the remaining topics and freewrite on each of them for five minutes.

Reminders:

Brainstorming is an informal way of generating topics to write about, or points to make about your topic. It can be done at any point along the writing process. You can brainstorm a whole paper or just a conclusion or an example. The important point about brainstorming is that there should be no pressure to be "brilliant." You should simply open your mind to whatever pops into it. Think of it as a kind of free association. When I say "literacy," what pops into your mind? Much of what you will come up with will not be useful, but that's okay. Part of brainstorming will involve a selection process.

Listing is a brainstorming technique many people find useful. It means doing just what its name suggests -- listing possible topics and then sublists of things you could say about each topic. A list could consist of the main topic of regional dialects and then sublists would be regional dialects you know or have experienced. Additional sublists might be particular words of each of those dialects, things you have noticed about those dialects (i.e. New Yorkers speak fast), what you think those dialects sound like, etc.

Suggested Readings

Below is a list of texts that would be appropriate to hand out to your students, plus texts that can be read by the teacher.

Readings from The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers

Chapter Four, "Remembering," should be assigned background reading for your students.

Remembering Techniques

Use these techniques to jog your memory:

Student Readings from Other Sources

  • Donald, Robert B. et al. Writing Clear Essays, Third Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996. 4-5.
    A brief overview of brainstorming, freewriting, and journal keeping collecting techniques. Basic level of writing.
  • Reinking, James A., Andrew W. Hart, and Robert Von Der Osten. Strategies for Successful Writing: A Rhetoric, Research Guide, and Reader. Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996. 12-20.
    Discusses strategies for finding a topic. Gives exercises and examples of brainstorming, freewriting, journaling, and sorting. Discusses the link between audience and purpose and selecting a topic.

    Teacher Readings from Other Sources

  • Connors, Robert, and Cheryl Glenn. The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
    Provides an overview of teaching composition. Highlights the process of composition, including topic generation and focus.
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
    Discusses freewriting as a means of generating topics.
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
    Discusses freewriting and other prewriting techniques that can help students to find their own topics.
  • Gebhardt, Richard C. "Initial Plans and Spontaneous Composition: Toward a Comprehensive Theory of the Writing Process." CE 44 (1982): 620-27.

  • Lunsford, Andrea. "An Update of the Bibliography on Basic Writing." Teaching Composition: Twelve Bibliographical Essays. Gary Tate, Ed. Texas Christian University: Fort Worth, 1987. 207-226.
    Provides an updated bibliography to texts on basic writing including helping students get started. Briefly discusses recent issues of teaching basic writing.
  • Shaughnessy, Mina P. "Basic Writing." Teaching Composition: Twelve Bibliographical Essays. Gary Tate, Ed. Texas Christian University: Fort Worth, 1987. 177-206.
    A bibliography to texts on basic writing including helping students get started. Briefly discusses recent issues of teaching basic writing.